Skills for Life
Mid-term at Bard Clemente

Part Two in an occasional series by Geoff Cole

reprinted from Real Change

With pressures from welfare reform to get people into the workforce, and an economy that has Help Wanted signs springing up like daffodils, there's no shortage of training "opportunities" for poor and homeless people. But not all training programs are equal. In the American tradition of the quick fix, short-sighted approaches that focus only on job skills to the exclusion of such "life skills" as critical thinking, assertiveness, and self-esteem are the rule.

Last month, in the first article of a series, Real Change documented two exceptions to that rule-The Foundry, a computer-literacy course for homeless kids, and an informal series of classes for homeless women hosted by Antioch University. This month, we revisit the Bard-Clemente course in the humanities (featured in RC, October 1998).

The opposite of the "band aid" approach, the Bard-Clemente program isn't "training" at all in the sense that, apart from greater facility in writing, the students are learning no particular marketable skills. What they are learning is to "access the life-enriching experience of the humanities, become better prepared to be participating citizens and, in many cases, go on to college," according to the program's objectives.

The Seattle Bard-Clemente program is modeled after a highly successful humanities course for low income people on New York's Lower East Side, organized by author Earl Shorris and sponsored by Bard College and the Clemente mental health clinic. Discovering that poor people perceive themselves almost as non-citizens, with neither a stake in the culture nor anything of value to offer it, Shorris reasoned that the study of the humanities-history, philosophy, the arts-could change that self-perception. The Bard-Clemente program was his way to test the theory.

In Seattle the program is coordinated by Lyall Bush under the sponsorship of the Washington Commission for the Humanities. With a faculty of five distinguished local scholars, the students meet two evenings a week to study American history, drama and poetry, art history, moral philosophy, writing and critical thinking.

At the two-thirds mark (the program began in October and ends in June), it appears to be working, says Bush. Fifteen of the 26 original students are still enrolled. "I have indeed noted many students' greater awareness of the way the world works," says Bush. "I have noted also that some students have begun to make changes in their lives as a direct result of being in the course-including educational and career goals."

Several students' experiences bear out Bush's observation. Janet Welt, the first student to be accepted in the program, told Real Change in October that she was intimidated by the idea of attending a concert or a play. "It was like looking in a window at another world, like a visitor." No longer feeling like an outsider, Janet recently treated herself to a show at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. "And I got it!" she said of the show's content. Now, with Sophocles' plays Antigone and Oedipus the King under her belt, she says she's looking forward with eager confidence to the opening of Arthur Miller's The Crucible at ACT theater this spring.

For Terry, who has a two-year degree but because of a psychological disorder hasn't worked or gone to school for a long time, taking the course was an opportunity to "get going again." So far, besides learning about the humanities, Terry says he's "finding some sort of balance among my strengths and limitations."

"It's not a real clean process ... there's certainly some agony that goes along with it," he reflects. "There have been a couple of times when I just wanted to bail and forget it, I just felt overwhelmed by it, there's so much reading and things to do." Like most under-confident students in this type of program, Terry found "I need a lot of hand-holding to keep on going," which, he says, the writing teacher (program director Lyall Bush) has provided.

Despite the stresses, Terry has been energized by the experience, especially the literature and philosophy because "we get into a's a participation kind of thing." He even finds "I have to hold myself back" in discussions so that others can speak.

Perhaps for the first time, he says, he sees the relationships between subjects-"the way the material runs together with the philosophy, the art history, everything meshing together. It's nice to have the continuity in that."

How has he changed? "This is going to help me develop a bit more discipline and self confidence and raise my level of functioning." Right now "I'm right in the middle of the birth of it...the pains of the process...the jury's not in yet."

Kathy's experience, paralleling that of others interviewed for this series, illustrates several of the disabling factors Shorris identified, such as lack of time and energy for self-improvement, intimidation by the mainstream culture, and lack of self esteem.

For Kathy, who had started college "right out of high school" with the attitude "just get the grade, don't think about it," the Bard-Clemente program offered a chance to "take my time, think about it, absorb material and not have that pressure of having somebody saying, `You have to do this a certain way,' the way you really do in a structured college setting."

Homeless and living in shelters, she was encouraged by a housing coordinator at the Compass Center to apply for the course. She did, hoping to get "a refresher on the writing because I want to re-enroll in college in the fall, and the literature because I've never been exposed to literature."

But it turns out it's art history she really loves. Just as Penny from the Antioch program (RC, March 99) was intimidated by computers, Kathy says, "I've always enjoyed different things about art but felt very intimidated if I went into an art gallery and heard people talking because I didn't understand what they were talking about." Though she had learned bits and pieces about art from experience, "to see the history of art laid out from point zero is really amazing."

Kathy's class in US History has also changed her. Using the study of Columbus as an example, she says her original freshman history class was "just an extension of making Pilgrim hats in grade school." While skeptical about the Columbus story-"I've known that people of different cultures were here not by choice"-she didn't have enough knowledge to trust her skepticism. But at Bard-Clemente, says Kathy, the students have to decide for themselves on a thinking level. Among other things, she says, "I discovered that the Puritans weren't very pure."

"A person can have all the beliefs in the world, but until they have some academic background and some history of the content of what they're talking about, they don't have anything," she concluded.

While volunteering at the Seattle Aquarium, Kathy became fascinated with marine biology and has already enrolled in the Shoreline Community College course in Marine Technology. Although what she learns at Bard-Clemente won't apply directly to her chosen career, she believes it will help. "[The course] builds my self-esteem back up for all the times before when I felt I couldn't do it and had all this pressure on me. I'm really glad I'm taking this program, and I hope they continue it for more people."

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